Understanding Lord Shiva from different perspectives
(Adapted from a talk given on Shivaratri 2003)

The Vedic literatures inform us that there are two categories of controllers: God, the Supreme Lord (bhagavan, full in all opulences), and the demigods (devas, appointed servants of the Supreme Lord placed in charge of the various departments of the management of the universe). The Supreme Lord is compared to the king, the absolute sovereign, whereas the various demigods are likened to the king’s ministers. They are placed in powerful positions by the king in consideration of their faithful service to him. They are always dependent on the king always his faithful servants. The Supreme Lord can grant any boon to His worshipers, even up to liberation from material bondage. The various demigods, however, can grant only material facilities within the material world, and then too only with the sanction of the Supreme Lord. That Supreme Lord is Krishna, or Vishnu, as confirmed throughout the Vedic literatures.

The Bhagavad-gita, the essence of the Vedic literatures, spoken by Krishna Himself, recommends complete and exclusive surrender unto the Supreme Lord:

sarva-dharman parityajya
mam ekam saranam vraja
aham tvam sarva-papebhyo
moksayisyami ma sucah

“Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.” (Bg. 18.66)

Lord Krishna further advises us to become devoted to Him:

man-mana bhava mad-bhakto
mad-yaji mam namaskuru
mam evaisyasi yuktvaivam
atmanam mat-parayanah

“Engage your mind always in thinking of Me, become My devotee, offer obeisances to Me and worship Me. Being completely absorbed in Me, surely you will come to Me.” (Bg 9.34)

Demigod worship, on the other hand, is discouraged in the Bhagavad-gita. Lord Krishna explains:

antavat tu phalam tesam
tad bhavaty alpa-medhasam
devan deva-yajo yanti
mad-bhakta yanti mam api

“Men of small intelligence worship the demigods, and their fruits are limited and temporary. Those who worship the demigods go to the planets of the demigods, but My devotees ultimately reach My supreme planet.” (Bg 7.23)

Later in the Gita the Lord elaborates:

ye ‘py anya-devata-bhakta
yajante sraddhayanvitah
te ‘pi mam eva kaunteya
yajanty avidhi-purvakam

“Those who are devotees of other gods and who worship them with faith actually worship only Me, O son of Kunti, but they do so in a wrong way.” (Bg 9.23)

Lord Shiva, the best of the demigods

Lord Shiva, also called Rudra, is the demigod in charge of the material mode of ignorance (tamo-guna), and he is in charge of destruction. He is worshiped by persons who are influenced by ignorance, and he supervises their activities.

ananta brahmande rudra sadasivera amsa
gunavatara tenho, sarva-deva-avatamsa

“Rudra, who is an expansion of Sadasiva and who appears in unlimited universes, is also a gunavatara [qualitative incarnation] and is the ornament of all the demigods in the endless universes.” (Cc. Adi 6.79) 

Thus, Lord Shiva is a demigod, albeit the best of them. Yet he also has another feature: he is a pure devotee of the Supreme Lord. And the service and worship of pure devotees of Lord Krishna is most highly recommended for everyone:

yat-sevaya bhagavatah
kuta-sthasya madhu-dvisah
rati-raso bhavet tivrah
padayor vyasanardanah

“The service of the feet of pure devotees vanquishes one’s material distresses and enables one to develop transcendental ecstasy in the service of the Personality of Godhead, the unchangeable enemy of the Madhu demon.” (SB 3.7.19)

Lord Shiva himself instructs Parvati:

aradhananam sarvesam
visnor aradhanam param
tasmat parataram devi
tadiyanam samarcanam

“Of all kinds of worship, the worship of Lord Vishnu, or Krishna, is the topmost. But above even the worship of Lord Vishnu is the rendering of service to Vaishnavas, who are related to Lord Vishnu.” (Padma Purana) Thus, the worship of Vaishnavas, devotees of Vishnu or Krishna, is considered the highest.

Worship of Lord Shiva

Sometimes the Lord Himself worships His devotee. For example, Lord Ramachandra worshiped Lord Shiva.Thus, if the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself worships His devotees, such as Lord Shiva, then certainly His other devotees may too. They should not, of course, think Lord Shiva is equal to or independent of Lord Vishnu. Rather, they respect and worship him as a pure devotee of Vishnu. And they may accord him the same respect as they give the Lord Himself.

Vaishnavas generally do not go to demigods’ temples. Still, Lord Caitanya, who is Krishna Himself in the role of Krishna’s devotee, regularly visited the temple of Lord Shiva in Benares. Why? Srila Prabhupada explains that a Vaishnava gives due respect to all so what to speak of to demigods, who are faithful servants of the Supreme Lord. Lord Caitanya offered obeisances and prayers to deities of Lord Shiva in temples throughout South India during His travels there, though, as the Caitanya-caritamrta also states, the devotees of Lord Shiva in those places became Vaishnavas by the Lord’s influence.

Lord Shiva’s position in particular is special because, as Srila Prabhupada has stated, “Shiva is almost Vishnu.” The Brahma-samhita compares Lord Vishnu to milk and Lord Shiva to yogurt. Yogurt is almost milk, but it is not milk. Milk can become yogurt, but yogurt cannot become milk. In the same way, although Lord Vishnu transforms Himself into the form of Shiva, Lord Shiva can never become Vishnu.

ksiram yatha dadhi vikara-visesa-yogat
sanjayate na hi tatah prthag asti hetoh
yah sambhutam api tatha samupaiti karyad
govindam adi-purusam tam aham bhajami

“Milk is transformed into curd by the actions of acids, yet the effect, curd, is neither the same as nor different from its cause, viz., milk. I adore the primeval Lord, Govinda, of whom the state of Sambhu [Shiva] is a similar transformation for the performance of the work of destruction.” (Bs. 5.45)

Lord Shiva is discussed in many places in Srimad-Bhagavatam, which is the “spotless Purana” (amala purana) glorified by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. (For more details, see article on page 24)

Gopishvara Mahadeva*

For Gaudiya Vaishnavas, Lord Shiva has special significance. Although Srimad-Bhagavatam concludes, vaishnavanam yatha sambhuh, Sambhu, or Lord Shiva, is the ideal Vaishnava, yet in other places the Bhagavatam and other sastras proclaim that the residents of Vrindavana, and especially the gopis, are the highest devotees. So how do we reconcile these different statements? One answer is that Lord Shiva is the greatest Vaishnava in the material world, whereas in the spiritual world the residents of Vraja, especially the young gopis, are the highest. And Lord Shiva, desiring to serve Lord Krishna and the gopis in the spiritual realm, took up residence in Vraja.

Lord Shiva is known as Ksetrapala, the protector of sacred areas. In particular, he wanted to protect Krishna in His childhood pastimes. Therefore, he took up residence in Vraja near Nandagrama, where he is known as Nandisvara Mahadeva. Similarly, he took up residence at Govardhana near Manasi Ganga, and there he is known as Chakalesvara Mahadeva. He took up residence in Kamyavana, where he is known as Kameshvara Mahadeva. And he took up residence in Vrindavana itself, and there he is known as Gopishvara Mahadeva. 

Gopishvara Mahadeva is considered one of the most merciful personalities in Vraja. The deity of Gopishvara Mahadeva and the other principal deities of Lord Shiva in Vraja were established by Lord Krishna’s great-grandson, Vajranabha. This particular deity is worshiped as a regular shiva-linga during the day, as in other temples of Mahadeva, but in the evening the pujaris dress the deity in a sari, with jewelry and ornaments just like a vraja-gopi. The history of Gopishvara Mahadeva, as received through disciplic succession, is as follows:

Of all the forms of Godhead, Krishna is considered the highest. He has four qualities that even Lord Narayana does not possess. Among them are His very sweet pastimes (lila-madhurya) and His circle of very special, loving devotees (prema-madhurya). Of all such devotees, the gopis are considered the highest. And of all such pastimes, His rasa-lila is considered supermost. Therefore, Lord Shiva wanted to participate in the maha-rasa, where Krishna dances and plays with the gopis.

Understanding that entering the rasa dance requires special qualification and mercy, Lord Shiva performed austerities in Vraja and thus was able to please Paurnamasi, who is the personification the spiritual energy (yogamaya). In Krishna’s Vrindavana pastimes, she is an elderly brahmani and siksha-guru for the Vrajavasis. Under her instruction, Lord Shiva bathed in Brahma-kunda (some sources say Manasarovara, and still others the Yamuna River). When he emerged from the sacred waters, Lord Shiva had the beautiful form of a gopi. No one can enter the rasa dance with Krishna unless one is a gopi. So Lord Shiva in the form of a gopi went to the area of the rasa dance near the Yamuna in Vrindavana, and when the other gopis noticed her, they approached her and began to ask her questions: “What is your name? Who is your husband? What does he do? Where is your house?” They asked so many questions she could not answer. So the other gopis concluded that this so-called new gopi was not actually one of them. They became angry at the imposter and began to slap her cheeks.

Shiva, in the form of the gopi, then began to desperately call out the name of Paurnamasi. Immediately Paurnamasi appeared and stopped the gopis. She told them, “Don’t beat her. She is actually Lord Shiva, a great devotee.” Because of Paurnamasi’s position as their spiritual guide, the gopis listened to her. Then Paurnamasi told Lord Shiva, “Actually, you cannot participate directly in the rasa dance. The rasa dance with Krishna is only for gopis. But you can stay near the arena of the rasa dance and witness it and protect the area from others who are not qualified to enter.” She also gave Lord Shiva the benediction that he could bestow upon devotees the qualification to enter the rasa dance.

The deity of Gopishvara Mahadevaa established by Vajranabha resides near Vamsivata, the famous tree near the Yamuna where Krishna played on His transcendental flute to call the gopis for the maha-rasa dance. Every evening around the time of sunset, the pujaris of the Gopishvara Mahadevaa temple dress the shiva-linga there as a gopi

Lord Shiva has instructed Parvati that the worship of Vaishnavas is the highest. Srila Prabhupada explains that Krishna has many devotees in different mellows, or rasas: dasya-rasa, sakhya-rasa, vatsalya-rasa, and madhurya-rasa. Of all of the rasas, madhurya-rasa, or the conjugal mellow, is the highest. Therefore, serving and worshiping devotees in madhurya-rasa is the most exalted of all types of worship.

Appreciating all these transcendental truths, devotees pray to Gopishvara to grant them the pure love that enables one to enter the sweet pastimes of Sri Sri Radha-Krishna in Vrindavana. Offering homage to this dedicated devotee of the gopis,* Srila Visvanatha Chakravarti Thakura prays:

jaya soma-soma-

maule sanandana-

gopishvara vraja-vilasi-

     prema prayaccha
nirupadhi namo namas te

“O gatekeeper of Vrindavana! O Soma, all glories to you! O you whose forehead is decorated with the moon (soma), and who is worshiped by the sages headed by Sanandana, Sanatana, and Narada! O Gopishvara! Desiring that you bestow upon me limitless love for the lotus feet of Sri Sri Radha-Madhava, who perform joyous pastimes in Vraja-dhama, I offer my obeisances unto you again and again.” (Sri Sankalpa-kalpadruma, 103)

Sanatana Goswami and the mosquitoes

It has been said that Sanatana Goswami was an especially close friend of Lord Shiva in Vraja. In Vrindavana, Sanatana Goswami stayed at the Madana-mohana temple, near the Yamuna. And at Govardhana, he resided at Cakra-tirtha near Manasi-ganga, just opposite Chakalesvara Mahadeva. There he once was so disturbed by mosquitoes that he decided to leave. He couldn’t perform his sadhana or write his books. When Chakalesvara Mahadeva, Lord Shiva, saw Sanatana Goswami preparing to leave, he became concerned, because he wanted Sanatana to be near him there. So he came to the Goswami, disguised as a brahmana, and asked him why he was leaving. Sanatana replied that he was being disturbed by the mosquitoes so much that he couldn’t do his work. Lord Shiva was relieved to hear that the trouble was something he could so easily resolve. He requested Sanatana Goswami, “Just stay one more night, and by tomorrow your problem will be solved.” Then Lord Shiva summoned the demigod in charge of insect life and ordered him, “Keep your mosquitoes away from my friend!” Thereafter, no mosquitoes came there, and Sanatana Goswami continued to stay at Cakra-tirtha up until the end. Although he would also visit Vrindavana, he resided at Chakra-tirtha and entered into samadhi there.

Ordinary people do approach Lord Shiva for material boons, but pure devotees approach him only for pure devotional service. For example, the young gopis of Vrindavana prayed to Lord Shiva to be able to serve Krishna as their husband. Srila Raghunatha Dasa Goswami has written:

muda gopendrasyatmaja-bhuja-parisvanga-nidhaye
sphurad-gopi-vrndair yam iha bhagavantam pranayibhih
bhajadbhis tair bhaktya svam abhilasitam praptum acirad
 yami-tire gopishvaram anudinam tam kila bhaje

“Desiring to quickly attain the treasure of the embraces of Lord Krishna, the splendid and affectionate gopis devotedly and happily worshiped Lord Shiva on the bank of the Yamuna. I daily worship Gopishvara-tirtha, where the gopis performed their worship.” (Sri Vraja-vilasa-stava, 87)

Srila Prabhupada confirms: “The gopis worshiped Lord Shiva in Vrindavana, and the lord is still staying there as Gopishvara. The gopis prayed that Lord Shiva bless them by giving them Lord Krishna as their husband. There is no harm in worshiping the demigods, provided that one’s aim is to return back to Godhead.” (Bhag. 4.30.38, purport)

Giriraja Swami joined the Krishna consciousness movement in 1969 and accepted sannyasa, the renounced order of life, in 1978. During the mid-seventies, under Srila Prabhupada's supervision, he helped guide the construction of ISKCON’s temple complex in Mumbai.